BELLEVUE, Washington (Reuters) - Turnout was heavy at the Washington state Republican caucuses on Saturday as Mitt Romney took an early lead in the non-binding straw poll he hopes will propel his campaign to a strong showing on Super Tuesday.
Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the state Republican Party, said voter turnout would probably exceed early estimates of 50,000, versus about 13,800 in 2008.
With less than 4,000 votes counted from lightly populated counties in rural eastern Washington, Romney was ahead with 31.5 percent of the vote to Texas Congressman Ron Paul's 26.9 percent and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum's 24.4 percent, according to figures released by Wilbur. Republicans are seeking a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
Washington usually holds both a caucus and a primary to allocate its delegates, but the state government this year canceled the primary to save money.
The timing of the caucus, three days before 10 states vote in crucial Super Tuesday contests, has briefly made Washington state the focus of national politics and motivated many voters, Wilbur said.
Polling going into the vote showed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, with a narrow lead over Santorum. But libertarian Paul could also do well in the state, given an active ground operation and legions of committed supporters.
As others turned their attention to Super Tuesday states such as Ohio and Georgia, Paul made three stops in Washington state on Friday, finishing with a rally for about 1,000 backers in downtown Seattle. Paul also visited a caucus site in Puyallup, south of Seattle, on Saturday.
An overflow crowd was on hand in the gymnasium at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, where 61 caucuses were pooled together.
"We had at least twice as many people as we normally do, and a thoughtful and respectful discussion of the candidates," said caucus organizer Diane Tebelius, former chair of the state Party.
Caucus-goer Cynthia Cole, 58, said she voted for Santorum. "He's consistent, he's got a good moral base and he doesn't put his finger up to see which way the wind is blowing," Cole said. "Romney has done too many flips."
Stacey Price, 46, backed Romney as an experienced businessman who was financially savvy and best equipped to tackle economic problems like unemployment and the federal deficit.
Reporting By Ros Krasny; Editing by Peter Cooney